Has there ever been a food substance more demonised than sugar? If you started talking about sugar at a dinner party, everyone would have a strong opinion and things could turn ugly! With so much information (and misinformation) floating around the internet, it’s hard to know what is truth and what is false.
But there is one irrefutable fact about sugar…our bodies need it! To understand why, let’s take a step back and find out a little more about sugar.
What is sugar?
What springs to mind when you think of sugar? That white powder you pour into your tea or coffee? Chocolate cake? Coco Pops? Bananas?
There are actually a bunch of different types of sugars, and if you check out the back of any packaging, anything ending in -ose in the ingredients list is a type of sugar (food companies often break down the sugar in their food into different types to hide how much total sugar their products contain). You have probably heard of some like glucose and fructose. Table sugar is called sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose. Then there’s lactose, which are the sugars found in milk and dairy products.
The reality is there are sugars found in most foods, some in abundance (especially in processed foods), and some in tiny amounts.
Tell me more about carbohydrates…
Sugars are carbohydrates, and just like fats in the 80’s and 90’s, they have somehow become public enemy number one for many people. Other members of the carbohydrate family include starches (potatoes and rice) and fiber (whole grains).
Sugars are simple carbohydrate molecules that are digested quickly in the body, while starches and fiber are more complex and digest much slower, if at all. This means that if you ate a fist-sized piece of chocolate cake, you might be hungry again in 20 minutes. If you ate a fist-sized portion of sweet potato, you may not be hungry again for a few hours.
During the digestion process, most carbohydrates get broken down into simple sugars anyway, some just take much longer than others. Then there is insoluble fiber which doesn’t really break down at all, but often feeds our crucial intestinal bacteria.
As you can see, different kinds of carbohydrates can be digested quickly, slowly or not at all.
Does everyone love sugar?
Way back before food as we know it today, our sugar hits came from seasonal fruit and other sweet foods. We loved them so much because it gave us the opportunity to stock up on energy, vitamins and minerals before the harsh winter seasons kicked in.
Some people love eating sugary foods, while others don’t.
Before I turned 30 I was strictly a savoury man. If I went out for dinner I’d prefer an entree and main, rather than a main and dessert. I did not have a sweet tooth at all. But then something strange happened…I discovered chocolate. Today if I go out for dinner, I’ll be checking out the dessert menu before I even think about my main meal. The entree menu doesn’t even get a look in anymore.
But something very strange happens when I eat something that is ‘too sugary’. I get a very strange sensation behind my eyes, and the tingling sensation on my tongue is almost too much to bear. If the food I’m eating is too sweet, I just can’t eat any more than a couple of mouthfuls.
However, some people love sugar and can’t stop themselves from eating it. They can’t help but eat it at every meal, and often in between meals as well. Some bodies can handle sugar while others struggle. Everyone is different due to genetics, the environment they’re in and how they’ve been raised. It’s for these reasons that it’s impossible to say if sugar is good or bad…everyone is different.
Does sugar make you fat or not?
“Does sugar make you fat?” is a common conversation starter. Try it at your next gathering of friends and see what happens. There’s no denying that Industrialised countries are carrying more fat than ever before. In fact, more adults are considered overweight or obese than in the healthy weight range. According to the World Health Organisation, many Industrialised countries have overweight populations well above 60%. Some include:
- United States – Male: 72.8%, Female: 62.9%
- Australia – Male: 69.6%, Female: 57.6%
- Canada – Male: 69%, Female: 59.9%
- New Zealand – Male: 68.8%, Female: 59.6%
- United Kingdom – Male: 67.7%, Female: 58.5%
- Spain – Male: 67.1%, Female: 54.6%
- Ireland – Male: 67%, Female: 55%
- France – Male: 66.9%, Female: 51.5%
- Italy – Male: 65.7%, Female: 53.2%
- Germany – Male: 64%, Female: 48.6%
Has this increase in overweight levels been due to an increase in sugar? Again, according to the World Health Organisation, our average daily calorie intake has increased steadily over the past 50 years. Some regions of the world have seen drastic growth, while it has been relatively small in other areas.
|Near East and North Africa||2290||3090||800|
|Latin America and Caribbean||2393||2980||587|
To put the calorie increase into perspective for you, here is a list of foods that all have 500 calories:
- Four medium sized bananas
- One Big Mac hamburger (567 Cal)
- 100g almonds (576 Cal)
- Two Grande (475ml) Starbucks flavoured lattes
- 500g chicken breast (550 Cal)
Most of the regions have added the equivalent to these foods to the diets they already eat every single day. East Asia has added twice this amount!
But is this increase in energy consumption down to an increase in sugar consumption during this same time period?
According to National Geographic and their What The World Eats interactive daily diet table, our increase in sugar and sweetener consumption (Cals per day) has been relatively small in comparison to our increase in overall calorie intake.
In fact, as you can see, some countries are consuming less sugar today than they did 50 years ago. This shows that sugar consumption has changed far less than overall calorie intake, so our ever expanding waistlines has less to do with sugar consumption alone, and far more to do with the amount of food we’re eating in total.
For several decades from the 1960s, as sugar consumption increased, so too did overweight and obesity levels. But then a strange thing happened. From around 2000 to present day, sugar consumption has gone down in most industrialised countries, yet overweight and obesity levels continue to rise.
Well, what we can say definitively is that weight gain is way more complex than just the amount of sugar we eat. In other words, sugar by itself doesn’t cause obesity (unless all you eat is sugar).
Does a diet high in sugar cause weight gain?
In short, no. There have been a number of studies comparing low-carb high-fat (LCHF) and low-fat high-carb (LFHC) diets over the years, and the overwhelming conclusion is there is very little weight loss difference between either approach. You can read an entire article I wrote about the difference between LCHF and LFHC diets if you want to get a deeper scientific understanding.
Bottom line, if you get your calorie and protein intake right, you can lose body fat with a high or low sugar diet.
However, that doesn’t mean eating foods high in sugar doesn’t contribute to unwanted weight gain. Of course it does, for example:
- If you eat an abundance of sugar, and those excess calories mean you eat more energy than you use, you will put on weight.
- Highly processed foods often contain lots of sugar. In other words, there is a lot of energy in a small amount of food. You can eat a lot of this stuff, and the calories add up.
- It’s easy to eat a lot of sweet foods, particularly the processed kind. Food companies have become very good at creating foods that you just can’t stop eating. They are high in energy and easily digestible, so it’s much easier for us to eat a lot of it.
- Supposed health foods like flavoured yoghurt and sports drinks can be high in sugar. So while we think we’re doing the right thing for our health, we’re not.
Does sugar consumption cause Type 2 diabetes?
In short, yes and no. I know, confusing, right?
All carbohydrates (i.e. sugars, starches) are broken down into glucose, its smallest form. This generally provides us with energy to use immediately, or be stored for later use. Type 2 diabetes starts with insulin resistance, which means insulin gradually becomes less able to do its job of transporting glucose into our cells for storage. In addition, too much fat in our livers and other organs also plays a role. As such, there is an obvious link between our excess sugar consumption, insulin resistance and excess fat.
However, the best strategy for reversing Type 2 diabetes is not simply to reduce sugar intake. As we’ve already seen, sugar intake is going down in industrialised countries and excess body fat levels are still going up. The best way to reverse Type 2 diabetes or prevent it from ever becoming a problem, according to a mountain of research in this area, is to:
- Lose excess body fat, or maintain current low body fat levels
- Exercise on a daily basis
Sugar intake is one way to manage your weight, but it’s just one component of what should be an all-encompassing fat loss strategy.
How much sugar should I eat?
Let’s get one thing straight, sugar is not healthy. It provides absolutely zero nutritional value. Yes, it provides us with an instant source of energy, but if we don’t use all of it straight away, we’re going to store it as fat.
Having said that, putting all of your weight-loss eggs in one basket is not a good idea. Sugar alone is not causing you to be overweight or obese (unless it is almost all that you eat). Unfortunately, we can’t put a definitive figure on how much sugar you should eat, because everyone is different. How much carbohydrate you need, how well you digest and utilise it, and how much pleasure sugar gives you will be different from person to person.
According to the World Health Organisation, you should limit total sugar consumption to no more than 10% of your total daily calorie intake. If you’re eating 2,400 Calories per day, then you should be eating no more than 240 Calories of sugar, or 60g (15 teaspoons). Just remember, almost all foods have some sugar in it, even if in just trace elements. So while 15 teaspoons may sound like a lot, it won’t take long to go way past that number if you’re eating processed foods, drinking sugary drinks, and adding sugar to your coffee and/or tea. Remember, one 600ml bottle of Sprite lemonade has 54g of sugar.
I’m worried about my sugar intake, what can I do to lower it?
If your sugar intake is contributing to a daily caloric excess of the amount of energy you need to live, move and digest food, then reducing your sugar is a very good idea. If you don’t reduce your daily caloric intake in these circumstances, you will put on weight.
Here are some ideas for reducing your daily sugar intake:
- Stop drinking sugary drinks. That means any fruit juices, fizzy drinks or sports drinks that have sugar should be swapped for something else. Options include zero calorie fizzy drink options (the jury is out if these are bad or not, so proceed at your own risk) or plain mineral water (add a squeeze or citrus juice for flavour).
- Swap your dessert coffee for a different kind. In other words, swap your morning Starbucks Grande full cream milk caramel macchiato (280 Cal) for a short non-fat milk cappuccino (50 Cal).
- Cook real whole food for most of your meals. It’s hard to binge eat sugar when your meal consists of lean meats and loads of vegetables. It’s not hard when your highly processed meal comes from a box thrown in the microwave.
- Do you really need that chocolate brownie or caramel slice with your lunch every day? How many sweet treats per week are you really having? Might be time to have an honest discussion with yourself.
- Eat a lean protein source at every meal. Protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer, so having protein at every meal should reduce your desire for your mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.
- Breakfast is no different to any other meal of the day, despite the best efforts of the wheat industry to convince us otherwise. Instead of eating breakfast cereal and toast for breakfast, see point 5.
I think I need help with my weight loss efforts
Weight loss can be a tough journey, not because the way forward is confusing (it’s not), but because bad habits and behaviours can be very difficult to break. We often know what we should be eating, but make bad food choices anyway.
As a Precision Nutrition certified level one nutrition coach, I have the skills to help you reach your body weight goals, and keep you there forever. By changing your bad habits into healthy alternatives, I will teach you how to lose excess body fat safely, and keep it off for the rest of your life. That means no more:
- Fad and/or restrictive diets
- Weight fluctuations and yo-yo dieting
- Feeing like you’re in a constant battle with food
- Denying yourself the foods you actually enjoy
- Stress that comes with trying to stay ‘on’ a diet (especially when you’re hating it)
Instead, you’ll learn how to balance your eating habits so you consume healthy foods most of the time while still enjoying the foods you love so much. It’s about getting the balance right, not denying yourself and having no fun with food anymore.
The online software I use to help guide you on your journey has been tested successfully with almost 100,000 clients worldwide. With the best nutrition minds in the world and over $15 million worth of funding behind it, you can rest assured that you are getting the very best nutrition program in the world today. Take a look at what 365 days on the nutrition program I offer has done for these people…
To find out more about the Eat For Lean nutrition program (powered by ProCoach), head over to my Frequently Asked Questions page. You’ll be able to find out everything you need to know about the program there. If you still have questions, you can send me a message via the online contact form, or call me directly on (+61) 0435 554 422.
Whatever decision you make about your nutrition and weight loss goals, don’t look back in 12 months and regret not taking action TODAY! I wish you well and hope to hear from you soon…